Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has aimed his strongest blow yet at his political opposition by suspending two prominent reformist factions.
If upheld by the judiciary, the April 19 suspension would mean that foes of Ahmadinejad within Iran's establishment would be able to seek power in elections only by running without an established political network. That would leave the authority in Iran firmly in the hands of hard-liners for the foreseeable future.
The result would likely be a further roll-back of pluralism in favor of a government that sees Iran's constitutional structure and the sovereignty of the people as subordinate to theocratic rule.
The suspended reformist factions are both pillars of the establishment that in the past have propelled their members to top positions in the government, including the presidency.
One is the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution, established in 1979. It evolved to become a reformist group and backed Mir Hossein Musavi, one of the key opposition candidates in last June's disputed presidential election.
The other is the Islamic Iran Participation Front, which was formed in 1997 following the landslide election of reformist President Mohammad Khatami.
The suspension, ordered by the Ahmadinejad-controlled Interior Ministry, charges both groups with working against national interests.
The spokesman of the ministry's political department, Mahmud Abasszadeh Meshkini, said the groups were accused of "violating the sovereignty of the country, spreading accusations and lies, undermining national unity, and planning the breakup of the country."Important Context
The Islamic Iran Participation Front grew into the largest reformist base during Khatami's eight years in power but saw conservatives roll back many of its gains following the rise of Ahmadinejad. It backed Musavi in the June election and since then has also backed his fellow opposition candidate Mehdi Karrubi.
The suspension now goes to the judiciary for review, where Radio Farda correspondent Hossein Aryan says it is likely to be upheld. He says that while the judiciary is nominally independent, it has consistently sided with the executive branch since the June 12 election.
A ban on the organizations would not require any current members of the minority reformist faction in parliament to give up their seats because the organizations are not political parties -- something forbidden in the Islamic republic. Instead, deputies to parliament run as independents, even though they are elected largely due to their association with a particular political alliance.
The April 19 suspensions coincide with the handing down of prison sentences for three reformist political figures: Mostafa Tajzadeh, Davood Soleimani, and Mohsen Mirdamadi. Each received six-year prison sentences and a 10-year ban on taking part in political or media-related activities.
Mirdamadi, who is the secretary-general of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, is a leading ideologue of the group and one of the organizers of the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
The two suspended political organizations present slightly different threats to Ahmadinejad.
Aryan says the Islamic Iran Participation Front is extremely well-organized, acting almost as a political party does in the West. It has offices all over the country, youth and women's branches, and escapes government bans on reformist publications by issuing a weekly bulletin, he says.
Ali Shakourirad, a senior leader of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, said on April 19 that it would not halt its activities, despite the suspension. The semiofficial Mehr news agency quoted him as saying that "until there is a court ruling, no one can stop the political activities of a party."
The Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution is smaller and more limited in its activities. But many observers also see it as more focused in its ideology and with older and more experienced leaders. It, too, issues a bulletin.On The Outs
Even if the reformist groups are well-organized and have established revolutionary credentials, however, it may not be enough to save them from the second generation of Islamic revolutionaries, personified by Ahmadinejad and his supporters.
This second generation is now hounding the Khatami-era reformists with the apparent aim of forcing them completely offstage in what has become an increasingly bitter ideological battle within the establishment.
At the heart of the battle is the uneasy balance of power between the two components of the Islamic republic's political structure: constitutional democracy and theocratic rule.
The reformist wing of the establishment supports theocratic rule but views it as ultimately subordinate to the constitution and the sovereignty of the people.
By contrast, the hard-line wing, which includes "principlist" clerics and their lay allies like Ahmadinejad and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, views theocratic rule as ultimately superior in importance to the republican aspects of the Islamic republic.
This tension reached a boiling point with the June presidential election because the dispute over their fairness reflects precisely the debate over the power of the constitution and the people's sovereignty.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (right) meets with top military officials and commanders in Tehran on April 11.
The opposition's charges of massive fraud and demands for a rerun of the vote were swept aside when Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei endorsed incumbent Ahmadinejad as the election winner. The unilateral, theocratic resolution of the crisis was particularly resented by the opposition because it came even before their charges of vote fraud were addressed by the constitutional bodies empowered to do so.
Now, Ahmadinejad's suspension of two major political groupings on charges of violating national sovereignty appears intent on reinterpreting the "people's sovereignty" in even more restrictive terms. His move also goes well beyond the steps the supreme leader himself previously backed in curtailing the influence of the reformists during Khatami's presidency or during Ahmadinejad's own first term.
As always in Iran, one important question is how much Khamenei backs the new initiative. The supreme leader must balance his own desire to scale back the power of the reformists who challenge the superiority of theocratic rule against worries that further weakening the opposition could overly strengthen Ahmadinejad.
Ahmadinejad has had his own tensions with the supreme leader, including the president's sidestepping a demand by Khamenei to remove a presidential deputy from his post. Ahmadinejad promoted the deputy, instead.
But Aryan says that since the June election, the supreme leader appears to have abandoned efforts to balance Iran's opposing forces and likely endorses this week's suspension.
Aryan says Khamenei is "no longer acting as a referee" since the street protests have represented a direct challenge to his legitimacy.
"It is unheard of in the Islamic republic for protesters to shout, 'Death to the dictator,' but that is what happened," Aryan says. "He knows that the whole principle of theocratic rule is ultimately at stake, because even if these suspended parties support the system, the reformists in the streets do not."
The opposition movement has lost momentum over the past two months, partly as a result of seeing more than 100 of its members put on mass trial over street protests. Judges have handed down a dozen death sentences so far, and the first of those convicted of fighting against the state have already been executed.
Among other top reformist leaders who have been sentenced in recent days are four other members of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, including Khatami's former spokesman and a deputy foreign minister in Khatami's government. They received from three- to six-year jail terms.
Two other key members of the Mujahedeen were also sentenced recently: Behzad Nabavi and Fizullah Arab-Sorkhi. Each received six years.